A Well-Deserved Nobel Prize

The 2019 Nobel prize in chemistry goes to three chemists whose impact on global energy systems is only beginning to be felt. 

Yesterday, three pioneering chemists, John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino were jointly awarded the 2019 Nobel prize in chemistry. By building off of each other’s work, these scientists developed a product that has impacted billions of people around the world, and is guaranteed to play an even larger role in the years to come: the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. In the 35 years since this technology was first produced commercially by Dr. Yoshino, lithium-ion batteries have become a ubiquitous energy source for smartphones, tablets, laptops, and nearly all portable electronics. In honor of Goodenough, Whittingham, and Yoshino’s contribution to energy science, I thought it would be fun to imagine a world without this technology. A world where lithium-ion storage technology had never been invented. Doing this will highlight just how revolutionary an invention this was, and how critical a role it will likely play in the energy transition of the 21st century. I propose that the lithium-ion battery is as transformative an energy invention as was Edison’s lightbulb. Where the lightbulb freed society from the constraints and limitations of oil and gas lighting (e.g. physical transportation, safety, and expense), lithium-ion batteries have physically freed us in many ways from the electricity grid. In the coming decades, lithium-ion batteries will also play an essential role in freeing us from the environmental and public health constraints of oil and gas used by automobiles, buildings, and industry.

Prior to the invention of reusable lithium-ion technology, all household appliances and electronics had one of two options: run on Alkaline batteries (your standard AA and AAA cells), or contently remain plugged into an outlet. Both had their drawbacks. Even though Alkaline cells are able to store energy, they are unable to provide their full capacity at high currents. This is why your old Walkman or Gameboy only had a small grey and black dot-matrix LCD display rather than the 4K, 90 hz, super OLED displays of modern smartphones. If your smartphone or laptop were powered by alkaline cells, you would have a small pile of spent batteries on your desk by lunchtime and all of us would have to consider our monthly Duracell budget in addition to food, rent and utilities.

The transformation allowed by lithium-ion batteries of what is possible with mobile electronics is astonishing, and yet likely not the most profound impact this technology will have on our society in the years to come. Indeed, these days I often wish that access to social media and the 24-hour news cycle had remained tethered to my desktop computer. The most important role lithium-ion batteries will play is to free us from our obstinate reliance on fossil fuels. Electric cars and trucks, only made possible by the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, are rapidly taking control of the auto industry. These vehicles will eventually eliminate close to a third of global carbon emissions, and will dramatically improve urban air quality. This application alone will likely be responsible for saving millions of lives world-wide. Without Goodenough, Wittingham, and Yoshido’s invention our only hope for pollution-free road transportation would have been hydrogen fuel cell technology which has proven to be extremely expensive and requiring of an entirely new hydrogen distribution network. 

Sure, lithium-ion batteries are not a perfect technology. They are still a bit too expensive to rely on for large scale storage, and they don’t do well when left uncharged making them poorly suited for monthly storage cycles. However, engineers and chemists around the world are persistently improving this technology, continuing the legacy of iterative design set by the Nobel laureates, to improve density, longevity, cost, and sustainability. As these improvements make it to market, the possible applications of this liberating technology will only grow. Lithium-ion technology has only just begun to demonstrate the enormous positive influence it will have on society so from every smartphone user, home-owner, and person who cares about the future of our climate, I just want to say thank you to the 2019 chemistry Nobel laureates.

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.